How Acceptance Resolves Many Problems

5 min read

I recently had two conversations that illustrate how acceptance can be the foundation for resolving the turmoil people can feel. One conversation was about the rage of a son, who is spiraling into addiction. The other focused on a man’s dread of an eye disease that is progressively plunging him into blindness.

As an addiction psychiatrist, I am familiar with the meme many alcoholics and addicts recovering through the Twelve Steps repeat about acceptance being the solution to all their problems. They are referring to Step One’s admission of powerlessness over the disease of addiction. No matter how they modified their alcohol and/or drug use, their brain remained hijacked, and their behavior continued a downward course. It was only when they accepted the physical reality of their brain’s inability to control the devastating effects of substance use that they found the willingness to change course, to abstain from substance use, and thereby regain physical, mental, and emotional health.

What exactly is acceptance? And how is it achieved?

Complete denial of addiction or encroaching blindness completely prevents acceptance of reality. Partial denial also exists when a person intellectually acknowledges reality but ignores its implications and its personal significance. Intellect and emotion are separate processes. Again, acceptance is blocked. Partial denial is especially common in response to trauma when emotions are shut down to avoid being totally overwhelmed.

Acceptance is essentially an emotional challenge. While we can make a logical decision to accept an unpleasant reality, this does not flip a switch to produce the emotional acceptance we desire. Full acceptance requires the maturity to embrace all emotional reactions while not being overly identified with them. This is best described by the following lines from Mary Oliver’s poem The Guest House.[i]

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival….

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

The problem with relinquishing denial is the inevitable flood of emotions that follow and the shift in identity that comes with a crack in our narcissistic pride. Let’s look first at the emotions that greet us when we open the door locked by denial. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler identified four stages of grief that sometimes follow denial: bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.[ii]

Bargaining essentially comes from remnants of denial. During this stage, people make promises to God or bargain with the Devil to reverse their fate. For example, alcoholics often feel intense loss when they consider abstinence and try every means, including only drinking beer or only after 5:00 p.m., to not have to see themselves as an alcoholic. When bargaining does not work, anger at the unfairness of addiction or blindness raises its nasty head. This sense of unfairness is a remnant of a narcissistic wound that will be looked at below. Depression follows when anger exhausts itself and despair descends. This is the point when loss becomes real and permanent. A shift in identity is needed to move from depression to acceptance. A clear description of these stages of grief while going blind is contained in Pete Gustin’s YouTube video “I Was Bargaining for My Life.[iii]

If denial is the first barrier to acceptance to be overcome, narcissism is the last. We all take pride in being in control. The ability to manage life becomes part of our core identity. Then, when our ability to control addiction, or control an addicted family member, or even the normal ability to manage the world using vision, we suffer a huge blow to our pride. Our sense of self is diminished. We can no longer do what others seem capable of doing. Who are we when we can no longer drink with friends, no longer capable of keeping our child safe, or any number of ordinary tasks that require vision. To the extent our narcissistic needs demand we be fully as capable as all others, we will never achieve acceptance. The anger stage is fueled in part by feeling we are important enough and special enough that we should be spared the unfairness of our loss.

Acceptance requires right-sizing ourselves, which is the opposite of our narcissistic drive. Sobriety for an addict means maturing beyond the need to base one’s identity on being able to drink or use drugs like so many others. Acceptance. Serenity while dealing with an addicted family member depends on stepping away from the narcissistic belief that we should be able to change how another person’s mind works. Acceptance. Living a meaningful life without sight requires developing a new level of patience to live successfully within narrower parameters. Acceptance.

Acceptance means living in the reality of who we really are and not in dreams of who we thought we would be, opening the door to all the feelings about not being special enough to avoid our fate, and simply getting on with the life we have with all the gratitude and awe being alive deserves.

Acceptance is so very much easier said than done, but well worth the effort.

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